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Zach Fucale's recent struggles, and a reflection of our limited understanding of the position

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The goaltender’s prospects have taken a tumble, but it is really the symptom of a larger problem

Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

As I told a group of collegiate and professional-level goalie coaches at a conference this spring, we stats guys have been letting down the goaltending fraternity as a group since the dawn of hockey. Considering save percentage was not even tracked at the NHL level until the mid-eighties, it’s not much of a stretch.

That gulf between the quantity and quality of data available for goalies and skaters has only widened with the advanced statistics revolution. For skaters, not only could we pinpoint and quantify the differences between good and bad players, but to a certain extent, we can also use the numbers at our disposal to differentiate between the right and wrong players to send out in a certain situation.

On a given team, Phil Kessel and Erik Condra may end up having very similar net impacts on their teams, but we know enough about their shot production (Kessel is an elite shooter, Condra has limited finishing skills), transitional play (Kessel is great at carrying the puck and burning through defenders, Condra moves the chains in more subtle ways) and defensive impacts (Kessel plays a run-and-gun, high event game, while Condra is great at suppressing opposing scoring chances) to know exactly how to maximize their talents.

The same is not so for goaltenders. Years’ worth of save percentage data can tell us who’s good and who’s bad, but this really isn’t very descriptive. Adjusting save percentage based on low, medium and high danger shots is a good way to squeeze more insights out of the NHL’s play-by-play data, but that raw data is riddled with mistakes and biases. The errors do cancel each other out once you have a large enough sample size, but that’s a luxury that we don’t have with guys playing backup-level minutes or who are not yet in the NHL.

So what I have been doing to overcome the dearth of information is to dig out game footage, watch every shot a goaltender faces in a given season, and count things using a set objective criteria we have developed at the McGill hockey program. It’s very time consuming, but extremely insightful.

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When looking at Fucale’s season through this lens, we find out some very interesting things.

First, he is an above-average QMJHL goaltender when it comes to making saves in high-danger situations. Those chances don’t come often in a game, but it is interesting to note that the Quebec Remparts, the team he was traded to in the second half of the season, is a poor possession team which gives up 8.5% more slot chances than their opponents.

Second, in 2014-15, Fucale is one of the worse starting goalies in the QMJHL when it comes to making saves on non-scoring chances. His medium and low-danger save percentage is significantly lower than league average, especially on one side of the ice (his blocker side).

Third, Fucale is very good at making saves with his legs and at closing the five-hole, but his hands need a lot of work. When shooters aim two feet off the ice or more, both his save percentage and rebounds allowed numbers are considerably worse than league average.

Once you put all of this together, it is fascinating to go back and look at what the scouts said during his draft year:

"Fucale is a very poised and athletically-gifted goaltender who is also positionally aware and technically sound," adds Ross MacLean, head scout for International Scouting Services. "He moves very well in the net and squares himself to shooters well. I would like to see him be a little more consistent with his glove, which is strong, but he can tend to cheat off it at times and leave room over his shoulder."

"Say what you want about Halifax (Fucale's former team), with them being a pretty offensively-explosive team, but this guy was a brick wall," says David Burstyn, director of scouting for McKeen’s Hockey. "He’s got good net coverage. The one thing about him is he’s so poised — he’s always in the right position, very economical in his movement. Very rarely do you find him out of position and he essentially forces shooters to take a perfect shot."

"Cool as a cucumber between the pipes, Fucale has continuously stepped up to a challenge when called upon and given the team in front of him a chance to win every night. Quick in his crease with great positioning, Fucale seems to play better when he's kept busy. Though he never seems to get rattled and plays with the poise and maturity of a much older player, at times it appears his focus wanes. He also needs to continue to refine his rebound control." (Hockey’s Future)

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In an informal poll, I asked every high-level goaltending coach and goalie scout I know the following question:

"If you had to pick between two goaltenders with identical stats, would you rather have a guy who can make more difficult saves, but allow the odd soft goal, or a guy who makes all the easy saves but not the hard ones?"

Without exception, the people I talked to picked the first guy. From a teacher’s point of view, it makes sense – they believe that with good instruction and good habits, which they can provide, they can turn the guy who can make tough saves but is rough around the edges, into a brick wall. With that line of thinking so prevalent in elite hockey, no wonder that size and athleticism are the two most prized assets in a goaltending prospect.

But what if that line of thinking is wrong? What if it’s a lot easier to teach an average-sized goalie with world-class hand-eye coordination and feel for the game to move better across the crease, then to coach an explosive behemoth on how to catch a 100 MPH slapshot cleanly or not to have pucks trickle in under his blocker?

One thing’s for sure: Fucale’s next goalie coach already knows what he is dealing with. If the 20-year-old has the humility and ability to completely reinvent himself as a goaltender at the AHL level, he might be able to break through to the next level. But it will be extremely difficult, and anything short of that might not be good enough.

Jack Han is the Video & Analytics Coordinator for the McGill Martlet Hockey team. He also writes occasionally about the NHL for Habs Eyes on the Prize. You can find him on Twitter or on the ice at McConnell Arena.